In the Amazon, a forestry cop matches wits with illegal loggers

As deforestation rises, the Lula government launches a major new effort to stop it.

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters
Trees are cleared illegally in western Brazil to plant soybeans.
Andrew Downie
Contraband timber: Environmental cop Roberto Scarpari stands next to timber illegally logged in the Amazon, near Altamira, in northern Brazil.
Paulo Santos/Reuters
Illegal logs: These were seized Feb. 27 near Tailandia, Brazil, as part of a major new effort to stop Amazon deforestation.

Roberto Scarpari hadn't seen his family in nearly a year. So, he expected the Christmas vacation would offer a welcome break from his job of busting illegal loggers deep in the Amazon.

But the job followed him home.

One warm December evening, Mr. Scarpari, an inspector with Brazil's environmental agency, was visiting his kids in São Paulo when he got a phone call. Illegal loggers were going to stage a robbery and assassinate him, a federal agent told him. Scarpari rushed to meet with police, who gave him an armed guard, a license to carry a gun, and a major fright.

No attack came. And Scarpari is back at work heading the Altamira office of IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). But with a new rise in Amazon deforestation and the Brazilian government at the start of an unprecedented campaign to halt it, reliance on people like Scarpari is increasingly important to the effort to save what remains of the world's biggest rain forest. But not all forestry cops can be counted on to endure the threats, or the bribes, from illegal loggers.

"There are both good guys and bad guys in IBAMA, and Scarpari is one of the decent ones," says Paulo Adario, coordinator of Amazon campaigns at Greenpeace.

Recently released statistics show that deforestation for the last five months of 2007 was 3,235 square kilometers (2,010 square miles), an increase over the previous year's figure. The trend is a red flag, say IBAMA officials, because forestry destruction usually falls towards the end of the year, during the rainy season.

"It is a completely new and very worrying development," Joao Paulo Capobianco, executive secretary at the Environment Ministry, admitted at a press conference to announce the figures in January.

The figures were so alarming that President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced an unprecedented set of measures to combat the rise. Lula decreed a total ban on deforestation in the 36 worst-hit municipalities – including Altamira, the port city in northern Brazil where Scarpari works. The president also told landowners they must prove they are complying with the law, which requires that 80 percent of their land be preserved as natural vegetation.

Those not in compliance will be ineligible for government credit and prohibited from selling their property. Measures will also be introduced to stop noncompliant businesses from marketing their produce. Hundreds of federal agents are being deployed to the area to help enforce the measures.

A new crackdown

During the first week of the new crackdown in late February, code named Arch of Fire, authorities closed down three timber merchants and seized more than 9,800 cubic feet of illegal timber, enough to fill 200 trucks, IBAMA reported.

The problem is not just that such operations are rare or, in the words of an exasperated federal police officer, "just for show." It's that they are seldom part of a collaborative, long-term effort, experts say.

IBAMA, for example, applied almost $1 billion in fines last year but only received about 10 percent of the value levied, according to its own estimates. Authorities have passed laws to make it easier to confiscate timber, machinery, and vehicles but officials don't have the resources to seize more than a fraction of the potential haul. And Greenpeace last week said that more than 60 percent of a landmark 2004 plan to cut deforestation has never been enacted.

Scarpari, the IBAMA forestry cop, says that the government genuinely wants to halt deforestation but in a region like the Amazon, a vast and often lawless wilderness that is sometimes compared to America's Wild West, he wonders whether it wants it enough.

To do his job, Sarpari uses a variety of tools that range from satellite photos, tips from the public, and even his nose – the smell of freshly churned earth has led him to illegal logging on more than one occasion.

His work includes catching animal traffickers and environmental criminals but his most common foes are loggers. Some 90 percent of all logging in Brazil is done without the proper permits, according to the Environment Ministry. When Scarpari finds illegal loggers, he seizes their timber and equipment, and fines them.

In small cases, he goes with a colleague and perhaps seizes a chain saw or a drum of fuel. He takes pictures of the destruction, plots the location using GPS systems, and interviews the workers. In bigger operations, which can cover areas the size of small towns, he can call in helicopters, trucks, and 4x4s, and armed backup from federal police.

The scale of his task is daunting. He is expected to monitor approximately. 250,000 square kilometers, an area about the size of the state of Oregon, with just five other inspectors, two of whom are administrative and don't leave the office. They have only five cars – two of which are currently broken – four motorbikes, and a motorboat.

It is nowhere near enough and so it is a testament to his dedication that he has shut down almost half of the 100 or so timber merchants in the area, by his own estimation. He says that many give up and move their operations to another area where government oversight is less strict.

Watch for 'Christmas Baskets'

But some forest crooks stay – and try to intimidate or buy out the police. Scarpari says that every member of his team has received threats. Some of his colleagues have bowed to pressure or temptation; since he took over two years ago, five of the 19 people who work from the Altamira office have been removed for "illegal activities."

Scarpari's team works closely with federal agents, who monitor all calls in and out of the IBAMA office. They all laugh darkly at the once regular offers of 'Christmas presents.'

"The Christmas present could be a fruit basket or a bullet from a .38," Scarpari says. "I've been offered envelopes, presumably filled with money" he says. When those were turned down, "they tried to restrict me with lawyers. I said, 'Feel free to take legal action if you think that I abuse my authority.'" When that failed, threats followed.

Today, Scarpari still carries a gun and he is always alert to new faces in the street. But perhaps his best weapon has been his charm. His breezy manner and plain spokenness have won over many locals.

"IBAMA was always known as corrupt and [Scarpari] demonstrated that he wants to protect the environment and is clean," says Antonia Martins, the head of an Altamira women's organization who approached him at lunch one day to offer her support. "He's not one of those people who sit in his office; he gets out there and sees what is going on."

Such comments lead Scarpari to suggest that the tide is slowly turning in the environment's favor as more and more people wake up to the consequences of environmental degradation. But he says the federal government needs to keep the pressure on. "These measures will work if they are applied," he says of Lula's recent initiatives. "But you need to have policies that are followed through on. If there are people [and resources], it can be effective.

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